Sports

For Mendenhall, Success Began in Falls Church

Hailing from small-town roots and currently playing in a small-college city, Byron Mendenhall continues to stand tall amongst giants. Mendenhall3

Hailing from small-town roots and currently playing in a small-college city, Byron Mendenhall continues to stand tall amongst giants.

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Byron Mendenhall (Photo: Derek Blodgett)

Two years ago, Mendenhall, now a rising junior, left George Mason High, a school not particularly known throughout the state for its baseball prowess, to attend Randolph-Macon, a college stuck in the midst of a 20-year conference championship drought.

Not coincidentally, he went from helping transform one program to aiding in the resurgence of another.

This summer, as a member of the Winchester Royals in the NCAA-sanctioned Valley Baseball League, Mendenhall has served as a formidable bullpen arm, having appeared in 15 games this season, second most on the team.

However, his 1-5 record and 5.13 ERA are more indicative of stiff competition – members of the Covington Lumberjacks, one of two teams in the Valley League championship game, are from Florida State, Kentucky, and Virginia Tech, among others – rather than poor performance.

“You get a lot better competition [in the Valley League],” he said.

“I feel more confident being able to pitch against [Division-III opponents at school]. Seeing all of the work ethic from other players who go to some of the top schools in the country, I want to work as hard as them. They’re the best of the best.”

In just two short years at Randolph-Macon, Mendenhall has blossomed into the ace of the staff.

In 2008, he was named the Co-Rookie and Co-Pitcher of the year for the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC), pairing with Virginia Wesleyan rookie Gary Bulman to become the first freshmen in league history to win pitcher of the year honors.

Mendenhall led Randolph-Macon to the D-III regional tournament, finishing at 7-1 with a 2.33 ERA. In 69.2 innings, he struck out 71 batters and walked just 19.

On April 17, 2008, Mendenhall was named the Division III National Pitcher of the Week after collecting two wins over Emory and Henry and Washington and Lee, striking out 14 in 12 innings and not allowing a single run. He was named the ODAC Pitcher of the Week in the same span. To close out the year, the rookie garnered Second-Team All-South Regional honors.

Though with all the success, Mendenhall remains humble.

“Byron is Byron, he doesn’t generally draw a lot of attention to himself,” Randolph-Macon coach Ray Hedrick added.

“He is very quiet and very reserved. Most of the talking during the recruiting process was done by his parents. He keeps to himself and thinks a lot of things through and takes it all in.”

Last season, Mendenhall fell short of repeating his first-year success, but still put together a solid campaign.

In a year shortened by lower back issues, he finished at 1-2 with a 4.30 ERA in just nine appearances. Still, he was first on the team with 46 innings and 44 strikeouts.

On March 30, 2009, the ODAC named him the Pitcher of the Week for eight shutout innings of work against Bridgewater.

Mendenhall’s roots began, like most George Mason High graduates, in Northern Virginia playing for the Falls Church Kiwanas Little League.

Over time, he worked his way through the city’s baseball system, eventually starting on the varsity team as a freshman.

Playing for Coach Adam Amerine, Mendenhall led the Mustangs to an undefeated regular season in the Bull Run District and an appearance in the Region B semifinals in 2006.

For his efforts, Mendenhall was named to the Honorable Mention All-Met team by The Washington Post in addition to various All-District, Region, and State accolades, something that came from talent as much as hard work.

“When Byron took the mound, he did not want to lose,” Mason coach Adam Amerine said.

“That was one of the more impressive things and that’s hard to come by. When you hand the pitcher the ball, you’re going to get no fear and that’s pretty rare in today’s day and age.”

Even Mendenhall wasn’t prepared for the success that was to come once he left Falls Church.

“When I came in to Randolph-Macon in the fall, I was doing horrible,” he said.

“I went in for my first game and was really nervous. You’re always going to be nervous in each game, but once you throw that first pitch, you gain confidence and that’s how I go along. By the end, I was really surprised.”

“It’s not surprising that he had that much success early on, but he did it sooner than I would have thought,” Hedrick added.

As his junior year begins, Mendenhall seems determined to once again find the success that followed him in his first season and prove that his sophomore year was more of an outlier than the norm.

“My goal is to probably get back to where I was freshman year,” Mendenhall said.

“I didn’t help out the team at all last year, and I feel like I did that my freshman year. I need to be a leader.”

“Byron has it in him to want to get better,” Hedrick said. “The Valley League was a good measuring stick, that he has to improve on some things. I think having seen some struggles this summer, he knows what it’s going to take to be successful. He knows now what he needs to do. I absolutely have no doubt in my mind that Byron will find more success.”

The success Mendenhall has enjoyed partially derives from him playing off the underdog status attached to a pitcher who grew up in a small town.

“Everybody underestimates what my ability is. Everyone always says that since I come from a small school I can’t compete.”

And maybe, just maybe, Mendenhall’s road will lead to a pro contract.

“Byron has the ability in the next two years to be an All-American here, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Hedrick said.

“And I think that with some work, he could have a chance to pitch at the next level. Byron’s got better stuff, to me, than the guy [Travis Beasley] I had drafted in 2006 by the Red Sox.

“I love baseball so much I will try to keep playing as long as I can,” Mendenhall added.

“I would say that if I ever got a chance to get drafted, I would take it. I would go. Baseball has always been my way. Coming from a small town, everybody always knows how you’re doing and expected to do well, it would make my parents so proud.”